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Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich

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Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich

If you wander around the shelves of a music research library you will run into great stretches devoted to multivolume editions with titles like Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich. Or sometimes the title will be all in Cyrillic if it is the Soviet edition of the complete works of Shostakovich, for example. The first title translates as "Monuments of Austrian Music". This series was begun in 1894 and volumes are still being published. The first volume was devoted to masses by Johann Josef Fux and we are currently up to volume 160. There are a bunch of series, mostly worked on by German musicologists though collected editions from many different places tend to be edited by musicologists from that area. The basic principle is that before you can perform, consider or discuss the music you have to have an accessible edition. Of course as we are now moving into post-literate times musically all this might change.

So, as exemplified in these series, the greatest monument of Western music is, of course, the music itself. But next to that I think we should place another monument, perhaps the greatest apart from the music itself, and this is the five volume Oxford History of Western Music heroically written single-handedly (though with the indirect assistance of many, many scholars) by Richard Taruskin and completed just fourteen years ago. Indeed, because of its monumentality it is only now, perhaps, that we can begin to appreciate the achievement. Four thousand or so pages of brilliant and sober insight into the history of Western music.

I'm pointing this out because I am re-reading this work and appreciating once again what a marvel it is. In future weeks I will share little bits of wisdom from it. Right now I am reading chapter one, "The Curtain Goes Up: "Gregorian" Chant, the First Literate Repertory and How It Got That Way." The title itself is mordantly humorous. It is deliciously ironic that the written repertory of Western music came to be out of a bureaucratic and administrative need: to centralize and codify the liturgy of Christianity according to the Roman rite because of the 9th century alliance between Pepin the Short and Pope Stephen the Second. The texts could be written down, of course, but in the absence of a musical notation how on earth could you codify and teach the Roman rite to clerics and lay people across the whole Frankish empire? Only with a musical notation. And so the story begins!

I had to search around to find a good example of Gregorian chant that was not accompanied by bells or organ. In its earliest form, it was monophonic.




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